It’s ironic having a day off from work to celebrate our hard work. I didn’t realize until I researched it, but the concept of having a “Labor Day” began in 1882 with the New York City Central Labor Union. They chose the first Monday of September for this holiday because it’s halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. By the time it was designated a federal holiday in June of 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, thirty states already celebrated Labor Day. It seems crazy to think that at one time in our history, unions were powerful enough to have a federal holiday created to celebrate our workers. Can you imagine that happening today?
In the century since Labor Day became a federal holiday, it’s disheartening to consider what has happened to weaken unions--without which we wouldn’t have so many things that we now take for granted, like: weekends, all breaks at work (including lunch breaks), paid vacation, sick leave, social security, minimum wage, an 8-hour work day, overtime pay, child labor laws, employer health care insurance, and holiday pay (for holidays like Labor Day). Fifty-three years after The Labor Movement helped make Labor Day a national holiday, Tennessee became the sixth state to become a right-to-work, non-union state, which we have remained ever since.
Despite the fact that Tennessee teachers can’t unionize, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) has spent the past 151 years staunchly fighting for better working conditions. They have consistently stood up to school boards and school districts when policies are passed that hurt teachers.
One such example of this came a little over a month ago when TEA stood up to the State Board of Education when they attempted to enact a measure that would allow them easier access to punish teachers and revoke their teaching licenses. By law, the retention and dismissal of teachers is a decision made by the local school board and director of schools. The State Board of Education wants to substantially muddy the waters by putting that power into their hands as well. Steve McCloud, TEA assistant executive director for legal services recently said, “A teacher’s license is their most valuable possession, allowing them a livelihood doing what they love to do. Having ambiguous, confusing, and contradictory rules on how a license can be suspended or revoked would be unacceptable for any profession. We certainly won’t allow it for the teaching profession.”
In case you’re wondering why the State Board of Education would try to pass bad education policy that would hurt teachers, keep in mind that the nine members of the State Board are all appointed by the governor for renewable five-year terms. Only one of them, by law, is allowed to be a current public school teacher; of the other eight members, seven are successful CEOs in areas that have little or nothing to do with public education, and one is a former teacher with Teach for America. I know of no other profession where the governing board is composed almost entirely of people from other professions. Would this make sense for doctors or lawyers? Thankfully, TEA has people who attend every State Board meeting and stand up to them when necessary.
The Coffee County Education Association likewise works tirelessly to support its members. Last school year, we surveyed our members about teachers having to find their own substitutes. Then, in my role as CCEA Vice-President, I met with Dr. McFall, the director of schools, regarding the results of that survey, which clearly showed teachers’ unhappiness and frustrations with the current system. Now, Coffee County Schools has hired a substitute coordinator to take the burden of finding a substitute off of teachers’ shoulders. It’s a little thing that makes a huge difference for teachers. No longer do teachers have to struggle balancing their own illness with calling twenty or more substitutes, trying to find one that is available to fill-in that day. CCEA commends Dr. McFall for listening to teacher voice, and we are grateful for the strong relationship we have with her. As CCEA President, I look forward to working with her to continue making Coffee County Schools the best it can be. In the spirit of Labor Day, if there are any teachers, principals, or support staff who would like to join their local TEA affiliate, please go to www.teateachers.org/join-today. One lesson we can all learn from Labor Day it is this: Workers’ collective voice is exponentially more powerful than the individual’s. We are stronger when we stand together for a common purpose.